BYU Religious Ed and CES Curricula Overhaul

It appears a fundamental change in in BYU/CES' religious curricula is underway, involving major course shifts as well as graduation requirements.

2000px-BYU_Medallion_Logo.svgFor The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the past year has seen increased engagement in what I see as a two-fold discourse: 1) Reminding Mormons that there is “room enough for all” throughout the Church (i.e. no one is perfect and you’re better off inside than outside); 2) Transparency about Church history and practices is a an important step in ebbing Millennial attrition at the hands of “truths” they find on the Internet.

Coupled with these goals, we’ve seen new approaches to curricula. This started with the youth programs of the Church, and that revamp has been meet with acclaim. There have been rumors of changes to the Gospel Doctrine courses to make them follow the youth model. These changes have been met with enthusiasm and trepidation. The former because the youth model is actually engaging and results in better classes. The latter because the lesson material would likely move away from actual scripture study into broader, more topical material supported by General Conference talks.

Now it appears changes are afoot over at BYU and CES, consisting of a complete overhaul of the religious courses available as well as those required for graduation. You can read a leaked internal memo about the process here.

Currently, the requirements are:

  • Two Book of Mormon courses – 4 credit hours
  • One Doctrine and Covenants course – 2 credit hours
  • One New Testament course – 2 credit hours
  • Elective courses – 6 credit hours

So that’s 8 hours of required courses and 6 hours electives. The new proposal seen here maintains the 14 credit-hour requirement, but changes the key required courses significantly:

  • Jesus Christ and the Everlasting Gospel: A study of the Savior and His roles in Heavenly Father’s plan as taught across all the standard works
  • Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon: A study of the teachings and doctrine of the Book of Mormon with emphasis on the Savior’s ministry
  • Foundations of the Restoration: A study of the key revelations, doctrine, people, and events of the Restoration
  • The Eternal Family: A study of the central role of the family in the plan of salvation as taught in the scriptures and the words of modern prophets

The letter is interesting, as it expresses concerns from some of the Brethren (Elders Nelson and Oaks) about why “institutional” courses remained an option. Those “institutional” courses refer to the outgoing scripture-based courses. Apparently there will still be an option to swap out some of the new courses for the old ones if the student so decides, but no process is yet set in stone.

I find the most interesting offering here to be an entire course on The Eternal Family. It seems like we are really doubling down on the culture wars. And while I am  firm believer in the Proclamation to the World, I struggle to see how much canon-based material there will be for these lessons, other than potentially blithe references to Ruth being awesome, Delilah being bad, etc. Most of the course material will surely come from the words of modern prophets, and even with that, must we assume the material would come from the most recent prophets? Even statements expressed by a prophet as recent as President Benson aren’t always supported nowadays in General Conference.

Also, while the Old Testament has never been a required course, it saddens me to see us put so little emphasis on the most ancient of scripture. It is an imperfect record, to be sure, but the knowledge I’ve gained through the Old Testament, however small, has had an enormously positive impact on my greater understanding of the core doctrines of Mormonism.

But that’s my own conjecture, so take it as you will.

Julie M. Smith wrote a great piece over at Times and Seasons that I hope you’ll take the time to read. I found one of the comments there to be particularly interesting, as it pointed out that BYU’s new direction might run against the more scholarly approach of the “transparency essays” that have been coming out of Different strokes for different folks.

I also support Julie’s sixth point: “Scripture study is a skill. It requires certain tools. If these tools are not taught at BYU/CES, where will they be taught?”

That’s my biggest concern: the diluting of the actual scholarly experience at BYU. I think everyone should have the opportunity to become serious scriptorians through a university experience, not just religious studies majors.

However, there’s no reason to assume an entire course on the Foundations of the Restoration won’t involve an enormous amount of digging in the scriptures. I’d just be shocked if it was coupled with a deep dive into the historical realities of the day and went to great lengths to provide important context.

For anyone reading this with great trepidation, it’s important to note that these changes might not be bad at all. For any of you who have attended or are attending BYU, you know how brief the courses can be. Trying to cram even half of the Book of Mormon into one semester can’t do it justice, and we find ourselves blowing through entire chunks of scripture in order to get through the period. We face similar struggles in our gospel doctrine courses. Shifting the structure could result in more robust scholarship and engagement from students.

I’m the last person to defend the current CES model, as I feel it misses lots of opportunities, so if these changes do indeed come about, I’ll be curious to see how things play out as new curriculum settles in.

Do take note that this is a process, and the process has barely started. No courses are set in stone, nor are the requirements. Don’t expect anything to change until Fall 2015 at the earliest.


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